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What is Imposter Syndrome, and What Can You Do About It?

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Some of the most capable, intelligent, hardworking people you know might be suffering from a debilitating phenomenon—a distortion of thinking that makes them believe they're actually incompetent, unintelligent, and lazy. They're convinced they're faking their way through their accomplishments, and one day, they'll be found out—exposed as the frauds they believe themselves to be.

It's called imposter syndrome. Those who struggle with it "maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise,” as it was first described in a 1978 study by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes that focused on high-achieving women. 

WHAT ARE ITS SYMPTOMS?

In the nearly 40 years since the syndrome was first identified, it has persisted in many successful people in a range of fields. (Maya Angelou: "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'")

The most common symptoms are negative self-talk; a need to constantly check and re-check work; shying away from attention in the workplace; and forms of overcompensation like staying late at work or not setting appropriate boundaries around workload. Internally, people struggling with the syndrome experience persistent feelings of self-doubt and fear being found out as phony. They over-internalize and blame themselves for failures, even when other factors played a role.

“Those struggling with imposter syndrome also tend to attribute success to luck rather than merit and hard work, and also generally tend to minimize success," Joseph Cilona, a Manhattan psychologist, tells mental_floss.

From the beginning, imposter syndrome has been primarily associated with women. “We’re still living in a culture which displays varying degrees of misogynistic attitudes, and those attitudes are definitely displayed in the workplace,” says Katherine Schafler, a private psychotherapist in New York City. “When women internalize these attitudes, it dents their professional self-esteem and widens the gap that imposter syndrome slips right through.”

But misogyny isn't the only cultural factor at play, and women aren't the only people affected; many men are too. Cilona says the “obsession with success, achievement, money, and celebrity that pervades American culture” likely exacerbates imposter syndrome. “When these kinds of values are glamorized and exalted, the importance of having—or not having—them can really be intensified,” he notes.

WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?

Naturally, therapy is recommended for people who really struggle with the syndrome and fear it is holding them back. Cilona recommends cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which focuses on “identifying and correcting faulty thinking and belief patterns like identifying negative thoughts and reality-checking beliefs.”

Schafler also recommends talking with trusted friends or professional colleagues. “If you can find a mentor in your field who understands the unique demands of your job, that might be even better," she says. "Imposter syndrome thrives on isolation.”

Finding the right workplace culture is also key, notes Schafler, who works with many high-performing professionals employed by what she calls “some of the most competitive, top-tier companies in the nation." (She also works for Google once a week.) The professional timbre of a place can either feed into, or help assuage, imposter syndrome, she says: “Any culture that doesn’t normalize the anxiety and identity challenges of beginning a new career or working in a high-pressure job will be a breeding ground for imposter syndrome."

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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DNA Analysis of Loch Ness Could Reveal the Lake's Hidden Creatures
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Stakeouts, sonar studies, and a 24-hour video feed have all been set up in an effort to confirm the existence of the legendary Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Associated Press reports that an international team of scientists will use DNA analysis to learn what's really hiding in the depths of Scotland's most mysterious landmark.

The team, led by Neil Gemmell, who researches evolutionary genetics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, will collect 300 water samples from various locations and depths around the lake. The waters are filled with microscopic DNA fragments animals leave behind as they swim, mate, eat, poop, and die in the waters, and if Nessie is a resident, she's sure to leave bits of herself floating around as well.

After extracting the DNA from the organic material found in the water samples, the scientists plan to sequence it. The results will then be compared to the DNA profiles of known species. If there's evidence of an animal that's not normally found in the lake, or an entirely new species, the researchers will hopefully spot it.

Gemmell is a Nessie skeptic, and he says the point of the project isn't necessarily to discover new species. Rather, he wants to create a genetic profile of the lake while generating some buzz around the science behind it.

If the study goes according to plan, the database of Loch Ness's inhabitants should be complete by 2019. And though the results likely won't include a long-extinct plesiosaur, they may offer insights about other invasive species that now call the lake home.

[h/t AP]

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